Friday, December 30, 2011

Travelogue 429 – December 30
The Good Bad Life

'This place makes me nervous,' Daniel from the Peace Corps says. He's speaking about Addis Ababa. He's speaking about the Hilton. Meeting here was my idea because I want to sit in the sun in the patio area. The weather in Addis has been spectacular, and I'm all too conscious of the approaching trip to Europe and America in mid-winter.

'I'm not used to being around so many white people,' he says. I remember saying that during my first years in Ethiopia. I spent months at a time exclusively among Ethiopes in those early days, as my much-anticipated memoir, due out in June of 2024, will illustrate and illuminate. These days such things don't make much of an impression on me. I have to think about it: 'was this a faranji day or an Abasha day?' Hmm.

The Hilton is a rare respite. The afternoon sun drops speckles of playful light across my shirt and across my face, peeking through the leaves of trees along the border of the compound, and I can allow business to vanish into the brilliance for one instant, then another.

I don't mind the luxury too much, the clean spaciousness, the posh lobby and bar, the magazines,
the cricket on the TV. I have made my peace with luxury. In case I overwhelm a valid point with my irony, let me emphasize that this is a common sore spot among green aid expats in Ethiopia. They are working and often living among the poor. A four or five-star hotel can stand like an eyesore, an insult, on the cityscape. It is personally offensive.

I still have those moments, especially when I meet with quick-stop types who haven't registered the cruel contrast. But the months unfurl, and I am one moment among my rag-tag neighbors in Shiro Meda, the next among my well-fed neighbors in Bath; I'm scanning the contents of rows of tiny souks in Addis, made of corrugated iron, then I'm passing perfume racks in duty-free that are as big as each of those souks; and then I'm skinning prawn at harbour-side in Cape Town.

Cape Town: We're in John's van again. We're driving among the mountains of the Western Cape. Clouds have overtaken us; they creep over the mountaintops. We are winding up a curving road, and pull suddenly into a long drive. It leads to a parking lot, and from this platform of asphalt we take in a serene prospect of attenuated little valleys hosting long green patches of grape vines.

We turn toward the building, walking beside lush gardens, spotted with slick modernist bronzes. We enter the complex through a doorway twice our height, doors all made of expensive, polished wood. We pass a vast room sealed off by glass in which rows and rows of casks rest upon their supports, storing their red gold for the day its taste is perfected. We are led to plush couches, and glasses are set before us. It's our turn.

This is the Delaire Graff Estate, one of 200+ wine estates in the Stellenbosch region of the Western Cape. In the foyer is a facsimile of a square yellow diamond about two fingers in width and in breadth. In the tasting room are as many glasses of premium South African as you want for ten rand a pop. We splurge for five each, two white and two red. Amazingly for a man with a wooden tongue, I choose the red that the hostess subtly suggests is the one most 'wine people' choose, suggesting it with a shrug of non-alliance. The shrug works, and I rave about it at length while John rolls his eyes. We even buy a bottle to order to celebrate our arrival among our own people, the people in the know.

Afterward, we return to the town of Stellenbosch. You couldn't ask for a prettier setting, set among wine estates and mountains. It is also a college town, boasting one of South Africa's premier universities. It's an Afrikaaner university, though, and English is the second language. We sit in a cafe and eavesdrop on heavy-set men conversing in this strange, flattened version of Dutch.

Menna begins to fidget again, and I know she's struggling with the alienation of being in an all-white environment. She's been convinced that everyone in South Africa is staring with disapproving scowls. I have to admit to my own discomforts with race relations in the Cape. They've achieved marvelous things in this country, under Nelson's benign, god-like smile. But there's an unshakeable sense of tension. Menna's light skin and her features that obviously divert from those of ethnicities indigenous to southern Africa draw second glances everywhere we go. Under apartheid, I think she would have been classified as 'coloured'.

I am divided between concern for her and a desire to needle her and say, 'See what it feels like?' But I just keep my counsel and add more caffeine into my wine-soaked blood stream. We will drive back toward the ocean now.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Travelogue 428 – December 9
The Cape

Today we are in hot pursuit of Vasco da Gama. We will discover the Cape of Good Hope. Of course, that will be in the comfort of John's clean and modern minibus. For da Gama, it was the creaking, smelly mass of the São Gabriel, along with 170 men in his and three other ships, cresting wave after cold wave along the entire coast of Africa. Four months at close quarters with nutritionally challenged sailors.

But our comfort and ease does not detract from the enormity of our mission. We will discover the southernmost point of my life's explorations to date. We will watch oceans collide from the vantage of one of the world's most famous stands of rock. We will gaze south toward Antarctica with nothing to obstruct us … except for thousands of miles of water.

Actually it was not Vasco who discovered the Cape. I could be there were a few Africans there first. And then there was Bartolomeu Dias, the European credited with discovery some ten years earlier – knight in the service of King John II of Portugal. But Dias had no sense of poetry, first naming our promontory the Cape of Storms, descriptive but offering no sense of the moment, Europe poised on the threshold of exploration and empire. It took the king, John II to name it Cabo da Boa Esperança.

It took the Portuguese royals, the House of Aviz, to turn eyes west and south, inspired by Henry the Navigator in the mid-15th century. John II – the Perfect Prince they called him – picked up Henry's legacy in the 1480s, and pushed the boundaries all the way to India, eager to steal Venice's fire, the spice trade to the east – a trade already suffering from the fall of Constantinople a generation earlier. It should be noted here that it was the Perfect Prince who sent explorers to Ethiopia, leaving behind the first bridges over the Blue Nile and a lingering distaste for Catholics.

Our modern day exploration follows the course of a well-paved asphalt road down the Cape promontory. The first stop is Hout Bay, a cute little town tucked away below high bluffs and protected from the ocean by one arm of the bay. We park by the arts and crafts fair, and we browse among the wood carvings and jewelry until a place opens up on a tour boat. We pay our fees and board. The motors rev and we are set upon the waters, heading toward the open seas. We round the jutting northern escarpment guarding the bay and we slow to approach one stand of rock just off the shore. This they call 'Seal Island', and with good reason. There are hundreds of seals cavorting on and around the rocks. Cavort is a word made for seals. They are having tremendous fun, rolling in the water, jumping, waving their flippers in the air, and sliding off the rocks into the water.

We arrive at the cape itself after a drive among treeless hills, featuring many fine examples of South Africa's national flower, the protea. We meet up with some wild ostriches, who are standing by the road staring at tourists indignantly. And then we run out of land.

The cape itself is stunning. You can take your picture by the sign announcing 'The Cape of Good Hope', gaze upon the waters, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are said to meet, (though in fact they don't until further east,) and then turn around for home. But so much better to commit to the climb above the parking lot. It's a long and steep one, but at the top you find yourself perched high above the oceans, catching your breath at the edge of a dizzying drop down to the boulders and crashing waves below. Follow the cliffs a bit and you'll see the real cape about a half mile to the east, one finger of high stone reaching a few hundred meters further south and hosting the lighthouse, set not on top but down the cliffside in order to delay the sighting of the beacon by ships rounding the cape.

Returning to Cape Town, we drive up the east side of the promontory, reaching Simon's Town just as the shadows are getting long. Past Simon's Town is a little cove where one can commune with the African penguin. You walk among the grassy dunes on raised wooden walkways, and all around you penguins waddle and raise their beaks to the sky with a squeaky howl. They're cute, but they lack the merriment and bright-eyed wit of our seals. They trundle along like indigents looking for aluminum cans, stopping in their tracks for a brief nap. One stands placidly in place while a friend sprays him with sand as he digs his nest. Irritably the first shakes his scanty fur but never thinks to move.

We return to the city via the Old Cape Road, crossing the Cape Flats in the shadow of Devil's Peak and Table Mountain. The journey of discovery done, we settle in for some sea food and South African wine, reviewing our trip in the screen of our digital camera, much as Da Gama and his boys must have done so many years ago.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Travelogue 427 – December 6

It takes two hours to cross the country by plane. The terrain starts out east-coast mellow, green and cultivated, but continental desiccation sets in quickly, and the terrain becomes red desert. It is a long time before there is much else to see. Gradually, the land rebels, bucking and rising into sharp-toothed mountains. They subside and they swell as we approach the western ocean. In between, we see the appearance of golden grasslands, and then dark green squares of rich farmland, many of these devoted to wine, my bacchanalian sense tells me. And then, faintly glowing on the afternoon horizon is the ocean.

The captain of our vessel begins to speak to us through the static of the speakers. 'We will be flying right out to Robben Island and then turning toward the airport. Out the left-hand windows you will see …' And I gaze out my right-hand window. I'm sitting in the absolute last row of the airliner, sharing that row with exactly three children under the age of five and their moms. Only one mom and her baby share my side of the aisle. She sits with her chubby-cheeked boy on her lap, and she coos and whispers and tickles and bounces him all the way. I give her credit for keeping the purring little creature relatively quiet.

'Welcome to the Mother City,' announces the captain, and clear as day I heard the mom whisper to her baby, 'God says hi.' I glance at the athletic blonde madonna and her red-headed child. No, it can't be. Can I already be reaching that age, when decrepitude and religion conspire behind the blood-red curtain of the unconscious? Have I been flying too much, looking at too many clouds?

The Mother City is, of course, Cape Town. It's the oldest and presumably sweetest city in South Africa. Its lovely location was discovered and settled by Jan van Riebeeck and cronies from the Dutch East India Company. The town and the bay became base for the burgeoning Cape Colony, and until the relatively recent boom of feral Johannesburg, Cape Town was the biggest in South Africa. It is still the Mother City.

The historical town is set in the bowl between the bay and the three striking peaks that form its backdrop, Devil's Peak, Signal Hill, and Table Mountain. The most striking is Table Mountain, rising like a stone wall behind the town. Table Mountain is currently in the running to be one of the 'New 7' wonders of nature. The Bishop has been spokesman for the old geographic anomaly, (while also making time for the great spiritual anomaly, the Dalai Lama, who was recently denied a visa to South Africa. The Bishop marched in the streets, challenging his own dear ANC, saying it is worse than apartheid. He really wanted Dalai to attend his 80th birthday party. China frowned.)

But China's power does not yet extend to Table Mountain, which has withstood six million years of erosion and kept a level head. Up top, it hosts the richest, yet smallest floral kingdom on earth with over 1,470 floral species. And, not even the Dalai Lama can boast a constellation named after him, at least in his current incarnation. It so happens that Table Mountain had another cleric in its corner, the Abbe and astronomer Nicholas Lacaille, who named 'Mensa' after the mountain that served as a site for his observations of southern stars.

I arrive at the end of the day, and about all I have time to do is admire this immortalized mountain. I've heard so many horror stories about crime in South Africa, I don't wander too far from my hotel. But I do wander far enough to discover one of the very few neighborhood cafes in this area, the Narona, and I feel immediately welcome. The staff is international, Croats working alongside the native Xhosa, but the spirit is transcendentally hip, mini-skirts and scratchy alternative music, and there is Jameson's behind the bar, providing an immediate signature taste of life outside of Ethiopia.

The next day, my conference begins, if only barely. It's check-in; it's schmoozing; it's speeches. And then we're released upon the city. I get a bizarre take on Cape Town right away. The conference takes place in a five-star hotel in a strange section of the area called Century City. It's a development that wants to be an exclusive green-lawn suburb for families with some money to spend. It features domino-blocks of condos overlooking a canal lined with parks and crossed by cute bridges, everything feeling a bit abandoned. And in the middle of the complex is a massive indoor mall that wants to be the biggest in Africa. Inside, the noise, the proliferation of brand-name stores, and the food courts upon food courts all impinge on the senses the way a good mall should. But the cumulative effect of Century City is hollow. I'm happy to jump into John's van and head back to the town center.

John is a private tour guide operator in Cape Town. He partners with my hotel. He drives me to and from the conference this week in his van. He is an older white citizen of Cape Town, born in Germany but raised here. He has a wonderful, schooled accent in English. The accent of English-speakers sounds to this American ear more Australian than British, with slight Germanic overtones, but John's reaches for Oxford -- not quite arriving, but still pleasant.

I must see the ocean. John agrees to drive me to Sea Point, one of the seaside districts of Cape Town. It lies on the other side of one of those city-defining mountains, Signal Hill. This hill is also called Lion's Head. According to the lively local imagination, the shape of the hill, with its one high peak, swooping back, and round rise of rump, resembles a lion in repose. The district on the lion's right side is narrow and long, squeezed between the lion's flanks and the ocean. The view over the waves is from a promenade along the top of a cliff. Several miles of seaside are devoted to a green park with a meandering brick walkway. I have John wait for me while I clock an hour's training.

The Atlantic is wild; the breakers are dramatic. Blustery winds rarely cease to blow in from across the wide stretches of sea water. I run up past the small, candy-striped lighthouse, past Green Point and the stadium where Spain beat Cape Town's colonial founders last year. I run out of coast and have to run city streets toward the lion's backside in order to complete my mileage, passing through another of the town's many chic little neighborhoods, by restaurants and guest houses and backpacker hostels, until I reach quiet streets that host sedate little Riviera-style homes that tell me -- in concert with my straining lungs -- that I'm gaining altitude. I turn around.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Travelogue 426 – December 5

The cloth is drawn over the table. The day's light is damp and uncertain. The sounds from the street are subdued. The cloth is hundreds of meters. It wants to spill over the table and gather on the floor of the basin beneath.

I'm in my running clothes when the view out the window bleaches into a blank mist. Nothing survives in much more than outline. Where once was a view that extended as far as the bay, now there are only the abandoned heavens above and the scurry of startled ghosts below.

The wind picks up, and the window rattles. Below, at the ceiling level of the parking ramp, I can see waves of rain leaving their mark among the puddles. I watch, hoping to see something like a quick twist in the story of the storm. Nothing varies, and I mull over other stories, work stories. I write lots of them now, stories for people with money. That's what they told me yesterday in the conference workshop: tell us the story of the girls. It's the best thing I can do for them.

Suddenly I discern a change in the light. The mist hasn't varied, but it glows with a higher degree of intensity. The puddles in the parking lot have grown calm. I take my cue.

Gusts blow past me, over me, carrying needles of mist. I am undeterred. I head uphill. There is a whole lot of uphill ahead of me. My shoes and socks are wet before half a mile is accomplished. My jersey is wet. My cap is soaked.

The higher reaches of the town's roads become exclusive. I'm jogging past houses worthy of the Hollywood Hills. Everything money in this city could be West LA, sedate in a dream of the 60s.

I climb and climb, and at length I achieve the highest reaches of quiet, winding roads. I find myself on a cul-de-sac that offers a stairway at its blunt end. I spend the last of my muscle on those steps, and I emerge onto the highway over the pass.

After another quarter mile or so, I arrive at the crest, where the road passes humbly beneath the gaze of two formidable giants, the lion's head of Signal Hill and one impassive stone corner of Table Mountain. I bargain my path among the obdurate automobiles who are negotiating their four-point courses over the ridge.

On the other side lies the cold ocean, source of the sobering weather, roiling under the fracturing mass of cloud that was the storm, the storm that wove the interminable cloth for Table Mountain. The sea strikes land at Camps Bay, and there it finds kindness, it finds color, accepting tender greens into its palette as it discovers the rare shore. It rolls into the hospitable bay with a roar, after thousands of miles of storms, and it foams, but it surrenders.

The rain has ceased. I follow the highway down the mountain slope. The first vision is striking, the roofs of the town clustered beside the bay, the bay a crescent of white beach and white foam, those gentle greens filling the half-moon bowl.

The rain tapers and leaves off. I follow the highway down the slope, keeping to the narrow strip of asphalt that serves as margin and sidewalk. Cars whip past. Above the crags of the twelve apostles stand watch, jutting their chins into the wind. I make it down into the town, though not to the bay. I turn around to return over the pass.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Travelogue 425 – December 1
The Will

Sometimes you're tired. Sometimes your muscles ache. Sometimes your motivation flags; or perhaps its the memory of your motivation that flags. You awake with a faraway feeling, and it's difficult to tell whether it's you that's faraway or the land under your bed or the land you were dreaming of.

Maybe it's the whiskey from last night. You sat in the high throne at the Finfine bar, nestled among the dark rotting wood of the ancient place, relishing your habitual spot at the circular bar. Daniel is overflowing from the throne next to you. You are drinking a toast to his and Cien's great progress in the southern village of Kololo. Foundations are in place. Framework goes up next week.

Maybe you are sad that the conversation has been so diverting. It's true that occasionally he is polite. But it's his American accent that counts; it's the clumsy-cool diction that is only American. You realize it's approaching three months in Ethiopia this time. The emotions are becoming unsteady.

You find yourself among small things. You remembered to shave this morning; that's kind of exciting. Walking down the stone-paved road from your house, you realize you're looking at things you never noticed before. There's a bougainvillea with small, purple blossoms growing over the wall of that compound. A gate is open; you see the soapy water gathered at the base of stone steps.

Yesterday: Fikre is there; she vanishes. I'm slapped in the face; I'm drenched in a sudden shower. Fikre is there; she's not. I crash through the foliage, and I'm sprayed with dew. Fikre pushes on. Last winter, we called this 'Fikre's forest', and it was a joke: this entire hillside was cleared and eucalyptus saplings were rising from every stump. Back then, they were knee-high. You saw for miles. Now the trees are higher than our heads. Their leaves still exhibit a tender green of youth, and the shape of each tree is nearly round. Their trunks have attained no height, some branches touch the ground as some reach for the sun. We crash between the trees, and we release a spray of dew.

I've never been much of a morning athlete, but my schedule demands it. I tell myself it's healthy. The sun rising over the mountains is inspiring. I'm growing stronger. I imagine the next race while I train. I try to count how many more races I have. I picture Fikre's forest next year. I admire the trees full-grown on the day before the saws return.